Jun 7, 2012

Garbo Walks: A Pre-War Legend in Post-War New York


Greta Garbo photographed in 1924
by Henry B. Goodwin (1878 - 1931)
In October of 1953, two years after becoming a U.S. citizen, film legend Greta Garbo (1905-1990) bought a spacious apartment in The Campanile at 450 E. 52nd St. A building of understated elegance by today's standards, the apartment building served the needs of discreet older New York families as well as other movie stars. The building, which takes its architectural inspiration from the counterpart in Venice's Piazza San Marco, sits at the far quiet south end of the street and with views overlooking the East River. Garbo lived on the fifth floor with a view of the river and the Queensboro Bridge, and she decorated her seven rooms with attractive antiques and art.

From 1953 until her death on April 15, 1990, she spent much of her time walking the nearby streets. She typically took a walk in the morning and then another in the afternoon after lunch. Sometimes a friend would accompany her, and at other times she was content to stroll alone. Her biographers describe several of her favored routes. She liked to walk up 3rd Avenue to visit the antique shops, but she also frequented 1st and 2nd Avenues. She often walked north on Madison Avenue to look at art galleries or over and down to the Waldorf-Astoria to meet a friend for lunch. From her starting point at the east end of 52nd St. she would also walk to wherever the mood struck her. She would window shop or browse stores, and on a few occasions she bought something. Shopkeepers found her cordial.

She was a pre-war movie star walking into post-war New York. From the vantage point of walking from east to west along 52nd Street, Garbo walked from the old world of a flickering cinematic memory into the brave new world of mid-century - the Seagram Building (1957) and the Lever House (1951-1952), the Colgate Palmolive Building (1955), and the Union Carbide Building (1960). Greta Garbo, the most famous face on nitrate, chose to spend her notorious retirement at the dawn of a glassier, taller, quintessentially modern, and increasingly bureaucratic city that redefined New York. This was the fifties world of "the lonely crowd" and "the man in the gray flannel suit" and the dawn of television. For an independent and self-reliant woman in her late forties and in search of some solitude, she made the perfect choice.

Garbo Walks: Andy Warhol and the Crumpled Butterfly



Before Andy Warhol became the posthumously ubiquitous symbol of Fame itself, he consciously studied the fame of others. Settling into New York, Warhol modeled himself after the famously fabulous Truman Capote. When Capote tired of his young admirer, Warhol pursued Garbo. Even in his own looks he started to fashion himself into a reclusive movie star type, selecting an appropriate wig and some dark glasses. 

"He got himself invited to a picnic with Greta Garbo. He was too shy to speak, so he drew a butterfly and handed it to her. “She looked at it bemused,” recalled another guest. “At the end of the day, she absent-mindedly crumpled it and left it behind. Andy picked it up and had his mother write on it, ‘Crumpled butterfly by Greta Garbo’.” - from an article by Joanna Pitman, Before the soup can, July 28, 2007, Times Online (UK)

From 1974 until his death, Warhol lived in a 30-room townhouse on East 66th Street. As Garbo walked through the neighborhood on her way to favorite stores and galleries along Madison, she probably strolled past his house many times. I can picture Warhol, by 1974 the most successful star-struck artist in the world and the one who understood the most about fame, peering down from a window and catching a glimpse of Garbo, the star who walked away from all that. Warhol died on February 22, 1987 at the age of 59. Garbo died three years later on April 15, 1990. She was 84.


Mapping Greta Garbo




Greta Garbo often walked up and down the streets you see before you, "Mademoiselle Hamlet," as Alice B. Toklas called her, wanting to be alone. Starting at her apartment on the East River, Garbo wandered west and mostly north through streets and avenues of Midtown and into the Upper East Side.

This area defines the very art of window-shopping, especially the upscale stores along Madison Avenue. While she lived well, Garbo was often frugal. On occasion she would treat herself to some favorite caviar at a food market, but most biographers agree that she just enjoyed browsing.

Of course, many stores that are here today were not around during Garbo's time. But, as she lived at 450 E. 52nd St. from 1953 until her death in 1990, she saw many new stores open and close, favorite restaurants shuttered or re-opened under new management, and new office buildings replace older landmarks. Even the older places underwent extensive remodeling.

This itinerary is much more deliberate and defined than the kind that Garbo would take.

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"When we did pass, the brim of the hat flopped up and I saw her face. It was Greta Garbo wearing dark glasses, and totally oblivious to my presence. The face was still beautiful, but there was a sternness in it as she began walking a bit faster. She must have feared a word from me, some interference in her solitary morning exercise." - Wallace Fowlie, Sites: A Third Memoir (Duke University Press, 1987)
"I am not what you call a movie fan. When I worked, I had no time. I did not make time. I preferred to be out in the air doing something physical. When I stopped working, I preferred other activities, many other activities. I would rather be outside walking than to sit inside a theater and watch a picture moving. Walking is my greatest pleasure. " - Greta Garbo, from an interview in Ingrid Bergman, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (Simon and Schuster, 2007)
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(revised from a post originally published in 2007) 

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